[Originally published at The Gospel Coalition and co-authored by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb and Angela Davis]
Sex is one the most important topics of conversation parents get to have with their children. But it can sure feel intimidating.
How do we bring it up? When do we bring it up? How much do they already know? How in-depth do we get? Have we waited too long?
From two couples who have kids of various ages, here are four tips to steer these conversations from cringeworthy to more comfortable.
1. Beat the Culture to the Punch
Your child’s naïveté to the world of sex will end. But here’s the question: will it end jarringly on the playground, or will it end wonderfully in the safety of your home?
Children today live in a highly sexualized society in which they are exposed to sexual language, images, and behavior before they’re developmentally prepared to handle them. Most children are hearing about sex from their peers by age 8 (3rd grade). The average child is exposed to pornography by age 10 or 11 (5th or 6th grade).
The culture is going to tell our kids about sex at a young age. It is inevitable that our child will be shaped and influenced about sex. It is not inevitable, however, that culture will be the dominant shaping force on our children. As parents, we have the privilege of being the experts who shape our children’s understanding of sex, rather than relegating that role to the other side of the lunch table or to the internet, TV, or movies.
The good news is that it’s never too late to start.
2. Create a Conversation
Talking with our kids about sex isn’t a box to be checked; it’s a conversation to be started and sustained. The “one and done” approach can overwhelm children and close the door to future questions. Simple explanations over a long period of time will sink deeper and build trust. So start the conversation early and foster the relationship around it.
These chats don’t require pomp and circumstance. They can happen as you’re putting kids to bed, sitting on the couch, or even over a meal. “Captive car rides” are where most of these conversations seem to happen for us. Maybe it’s because we can’t go anywhere else. Maybe it’s because we don’t have to make eye contact. Identify those places for your family and be intentional in them.
Moreover, sharing age-appropriate information about sex and teaching a biblical vision of sex can counter unhealthy social norms around sexuality and relationships. Studies show that these conversations do much more than inform—they create healthier children. According to Deborah Ruffman, a teen-sexuality expert and author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go-To’ Person About Sex, “Kids who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed are not just healthier and happier, but they also postpone participation in a range of risky behaviors including sexual activity.”
Children’s remarks about their ordinary lives—their observations about boys and girls, their comments about pregnant women, their excitement about weddings, even their curiosity about inappropriate billboards and TV commercials—can be the perfect opening for a brief conversation about some aspect of sex. In addition, parents can initiate conversations about sex by posing open-ended questions: What are some things that make boys and girls different? Why do you think you have to close the door when you take a bath/change your clothes? What do you know about where babies come from? Your child’s answer to questions like these will help you see what they already know—and what they might need to learn.
So, how do you know if you’ve started a true conversation? They’re asking some questions.
3. It’s Only Awkward if You Make It Awkward
Topics are not awkward; people are. Talking about sex with our children can feel awkward because sex is private and personal. It can feel awkward because many parents feel guilt for sexual sins they’ve committed, or shame and suffering due to sexual sins committed against them. Our own shame or guilt makes the conversation awkward—and that’s exactly what our Enemy wants. Awkwardness creates barriers that prevent the kind of trust our children need and desire to have with us.
Imagine a road of healthy conversation. Awkwardness is a ditch on both sides of that road.
To the right, there’s the awkwardness of giving them less than they need. This kind of awkwardness shuts down conversations by saying things like, “You’re not old enough for that yet” or “Where did you hear about that?” Stay composed, smile, and tell them that’s a good question and you’re so glad they chose to ask you.
To the left, there’s the awkwardness of giving them way more than they need at the time. We should strive to answer the questions our kids are actually asking, not the ones we assume or fear they’re asking. A 4-year-old who asks where babies come from is asking a very different question than an 8-year-old using the same words. Oversharing can stifle conversation as much as undersharing can.
4. Tell a Better Story
Possibly the biggest mistake parents make is turning sex into a dangerous issue filled with warnings, rather than a God-created celebration. Our children are going to hear a narrative outside our homes about sex that fuels insecurity, shame, and selfishness. Even inside some well-meaning Christian homes, the narrative can simply be, “Sex is bad until you’re married—then it becomes good!”
There is a better story to tell. God created sex for our pleasure and for our good, so we celebrate it. We celebrate the miracle of life, we celebrate every aspect of oneness in marriage, we celebrate the way sex actually makes us love and appreciate each other more, we celebrate how physically enjoyable it is, and we celebrate how it pictures gospel realities.
And like any good gift, there are ways to make the most of it, and there are ways to misuse it.
Not to talk to our kids about sex as they grow up in a hyper-sexualized culture seems like launching them, with no preparation, into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story that looks more like a horror tale ending in tragedy and confusion than a story of wholeness, joy, and peace. Talking with them about sex, though, is one of the most loving things we can do as parents. And it invites explanation about why God created the gift of sex, how powerful sex can be for love or harm, and the important role sex plays in God’s creation plan.
Moms and dads, we’re more powerful than we previously imagined. We will—for better or worse—be a major influence in our children’s emotional, spiritual, and psychological development regarding sex. Let’s steward the privilege well.